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Star Alliance Mileage Run
by Joe Wolf

All Photos: Joe Wolf

Recently, a poster to Flyer Talk's mileage run forum made me aware of an exceptional fare out of Minneapolis on United Airlines: MSP-GEG for $144 with tax, in first class. This fare was lower than the value of the Mileage Plus miles I would earn, so I immediately booked a one-day roundtrip. A bonus was the chance to fly on a United Boeing 737 for the last time.



Flight: UA497
Class: First
Route: Minneapolis-St Paul, Minnesota (IATA: MSP/ICAO: KMSP)–Denver, Colorado (DEN/KDEN)
Aircraft: Airbus A320-232

My MSP–DEN flight was operated by an A320 previously used by United's 'low-fare' Ted subsidiary. The aircraft was in all-coach configuration, with the first few rows of coach in extra-legroom 'Economy Plus'. Even though I had purchased a ticket in first class, I was unable to secure a seat assignment in Economy Plus, and was instead relegated to the back of the bus in 'Economy Minus'. Fortunately, the aircraft was only about 40% full, and I had a window seat with the middle and aisle seats next to me empty.

Pushback from Gate E10 was a minute or two later than the scheduled 0625, but after pushback, we sat for about 15 minutes with the International Aero Engines V2527-A5 turbofans running before beginning the long taxi to Runway 17. Channel 9 (ATC communications) was turned on; as we were taxiing, the air traffic controller reported visibility of a mile at the north (arrival) end of the airport, but "500 feet and decreasing" near the south end. As we were climbing out after takeoff, I could see a thick, low layer of clouds over the Minnesota River - it almost looked as if someone had tried to fill the river valley with putty.

There really isn't a lot to see between Minneapolis and Denver, so I spent most of the flight reading a Vince Flynn novel. We began our descent over the high plains of eastern Colorado. With downtown Denver and the front range of the Rocky Mountains looming in the distance, we turned south to circle for a long straight-in approach to Runway 16L. After landing, we had only a brief taxi to Gate B29; despite the delay on the ground in MSP, we pulled into the gate a minute or two before the scheduled 0730.

One of my rules of thumb is that when you're making a connection, the distance between your arrival and departure gates is inversely correlated to the amount of time you have to make your connection. Sure enough, I had 1hr 10min between flights, but my 737 to GEG would be departing from Gate B23, only three gates away. With plenty of time on my hands, I spent about 20 minutes walking up and down DEN’s B Concourse to stretch my legs, before returning to B23 to await departure of my flight.


The A320 I flew MSP-DEN was in full United colors on the outside...but still had an all-Y Ted interior.



Flight: UA497
Class: First
Route: DEN–Spokane, Washington (GEG/KGEG)
Aircraft: Boeing 737-300

UA 737s

Arriving at DEN from MSP, with three UA 737s parked next to us. The aircraft (N379UA) assigned to the DEN-GEG-DEN legs is furthest from the camera.

I was pleasantly surprised that the interior of the 737 was still in good condition, even though it was due for retirement less than a week after my flight. My fabric-covered seat was very well padded; it almost felt as if I was sitting on clouds. Pushback was a minute or two earlier than the scheduled 0840. We had only a brief taxi to Runway 25, but had to wait for several other aircraft before it was our turn. After takeoff, we turned due north and flew parallel to the front range of the Rockies. We turned to the northwest past Fort Collins, Colorado, around the time the purser passed out continental breakfast. The choices were either a fruit plate or a fruit and cheese plate. I chose the latter, and it was reasonably good - watermelon, orange, and pineapple slices, grapes, two pieces of cheddar cheese, crackers, and strawberry banana yogurt. Although the purser provided table linen, the presentation of the meal was otherwise very disappointing - the food came in a plastic box, and the utensils were plastic, too. By this time, I'd been awake for nine hours, so I chose to drink white wine with my meal.


 'Breakfast', en route DEN-GEG.

As I was eating, we flew west of Laramie, Wyoming, with the University of Wyoming's football stadium visible on the east side of town. Beyond Laramie, it was easy to spot the blue water of the huge Seminole and Pathfinder reservoirs, and the town of Lander, brightening up the otherwise very barren landscape. The scenery improved markedly as we neared the northwest corner of Wyoming, first with the mountains of the Bridger Teton National Forest, then the awe-inspiring Grand Teton National Park. There were low clouds at the north end of the park, so I was not able to see Jackson Lake, but I did enjoy a spectacular view of the 1.55mi (2.5km)-high Tetons, along with Phelps Lake at the south end of the park. It was so clear at high altitude that I was even able to see the Absaroka Mountains far to the north at Yellowstone National Park. Two of the flight attendants sat down next to unoccupied window seats - they were as taken by the view as I was.

The Tetons tower above fog-shrouded Jackson Lake, Wyoming

 The Tetons tower above fog-shrouded Jackson Lake, Wyoming.

The author, enjoying his DEN-GEG flight
 The author, enjoying his DEN-GEG flight

Beyond Grand Teton, the scenery became bleak again, with only the far northern end of the vast lava beds of southern Idaho brightening the otherwise desolate landscape. The lava beds gave way to the forests of northern Idaho, with a good view of 25mi (40km)-long Lake Coeur d'Alene, the second-largest body of water in the state (Lake Pend Oreille, between Coeur d'Alene and Sandpoint, is the biggest; indeed, one of the largest inland lakes in North America). We began our descent into GEG for landing on Runway 21. Flying alongside Interstate 90, which divides the city, I could easily identify buildings from Spokane’s 1974 World’s Fair by the Spokane River. After landing, we had only a brief taxi to Gate B3; we pulled in about 15 minutes ahead of the scheduled 1014.

Over downtown Spokane

 On approach to GEG, over downtown Spokane, with Mt Spokane in the distance. The site of the 1974 World's Fair is by the Spokane River.

I would be returning to DEN on the same aircraft, but I decided to leave the secure area and walk around the terminal. This building was constructed in 1960, in a design that would have been called 'futuristic' or 'space age' at the time, but now looks very dated.




Flight: UA408
Class: First
Route: GEG–DEN
Aircraft: Boeing 737-300

Pushback from Gate B3 was a minute or two after the scheduled 1111. We were able to taxi to the Runway 21 threshold quickly, and were cleared for takeoff almost immediately. After liftoff, we turned southeast for DEN as we passed over the perimeter of what was known as Geiger Field (hence the three-letter designator). I was able to see the airport, downtown Spokane, and Lake Coeur d'Alene after the turn.

The choices for lunch on this flight were a deli plate or a salmon salad. I chose the latter, and was again disappointed that it came in a plastic container, with plastic cutlery. The salad came with grapes and pineapple slices, a brownie, and crackers, and was reasonably tasty. White wine was again my companion for the meal.

 Lunch en route GEG-DEN

 Lunch en route GEG-DEN.

We followed a somewhat more northerly route between GEG and DEN than on the outbound flight. About halfway through the flight the pilot announced, "Those passengers on the left side of the aircraft can see Yellowstone National Park." Yellowstone is so large that it was four or five minutes before I was able to spot a recognizable attraction, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River. Soon afterward, I was able to see Lake Yellowstone. After we left the park behind, the scenery became noticeably bleaker, with only the Boysen Reservoir, south of the town of Thermopolis, Wyoming, brightening the landscape. We began our descent over the Rockies west of Fort Collins, turning due south over Loveland for a long, straight-in approach to DEN’s Runway 16R. After landing, we had only a brief taxi to Gate B28, pulling in about 20 minutes earlier than the scheduled 1435.

The Yellowstone River

 The Yellowstone River winds through Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River is at the center of the photo.

I could have gone straight back to MSP from DEN, but for the same fare I was able to fly via Charlotte, North Carolina, on US Airways, for extra miles. US Airways flights depart from the C Concourse at DEN, but because I had nearly two hours before my DEN–CLT flight left, I decided to explore the airport a little. I’d been through DEN several times on previous trips, but had never left United’s B Concourse. First, I took the underground train to the A Concourse (I would have preferred to walk, but unlike at ATL, the only way to travel between concourses is on the train), then took two escalators to the A Concourse’s 2nd level, to the ‘Skybridge’ between the A Concourse and the Jeppesen terminal. Unfortunately, no aircraft taxied underneath the bridge while I was walking across, but I still had a nice view of Frontier’s fleet. I also spent a few minutes enjoying an exhibition of paintings by local artists of Great Sand Dunes National Monument, near Pueblo, Colorado. I then walked around the main terminal to admire the fabric roof, which seemed smaller up close than it did when I’d taxied past. Near the Skybridge, there are several nice exhibits about Elroy Jeppesen, and his contributions to aviation safety.

F9 aircraft, viewed from the 'Skywalk' at DEN

 F9 aircraft, viewed from the 'Skywalk' at DEN.

My exploration complete, I re-cleared security, walked back across the Skybridge, then went to Gate C29 to await my flight to CLT.




Flight: US1530
Class: First
Route: DEN–Charlotte, North Carolina (CLT/KCLT)
Aircraft: Airbus A319-112

My A319, still in the original 'Steve Wolf' (dark blue, red, gray, and white) paint scheme, was almost completely full, and pushed back a couple of minutes behind the scheduled departure time of 1600. We taxied toward Runway 8, but it took us nearly 15 minutes or so to work our way up to the front of the conga line. Once airborne, we flew eastward across Colorado and Kansas, with Brewster, Kansas, and the Cedar Bluff Reservoir (near Hays) being among the few recognizable landmarks below. As we were over eastern Kansas, the pilot announced an eastbound United 757 was visible 2,000ft above us, first on the left side of the aircraft, then a few minutes later on the right. This is the only time I can recall a pilot pointing out nearby aircraft.

Dinner was served on this flight, but it took nearly 1½ hours for all 12 passengers in first class to be served. The flight attendant told me later the delay was because of a catering error in DEN - the containers the food was packed in were not compatible with the ovens on the A319, so he had to heat the entrees (main courses for non-US readers) two at a time. I could clearly see the galley activity, and he was working nonstop to feed us.

Choices for dinner were a chicken pesto sandwich, or salmon fettuccine. I chose the latter, and it was quite good – accompanied by a salad, dinner roll, and a warm chocolate chunk cookie. The meal was served on china, with metal cutlery. However, when I asked the flight attendant for a glass of white wine with dinner, he brought it out in a plastic cup. The cheap presentation made me suspicious of the quality of the wine - was it from a box?

 Dinner en route DEN-CLT

 Dinner en route DEN-CLT.

Darkness fell around the time dinner was served, as we were passing over the Ozarks. Soon after, I heard the flight attendants announce, "If there is a doctor on board, please ring your call button." A few minutes later, they brought portable oxygen canisters to the aft cabin. I found out later a 90-year-old lady had become ill in-flight. I was concerned we might divert to Knoxville, Tennessee, but our approach into Charlotte was normal. We landed on 18C, then taxied to Gate B1, pulling in around 2100, about ten minutes early. There were several medical personnel on the Jetway, but we were allowed to deplane instead of waiting for the unwell passenger to be taken off.

I had a brief walk to Gate B11 for my last flight of the trip.




Flight: US984
Class: First
Route: CLT–MSP
Aircraft: Airbus A320-214

Despite the very late departure time on a Saturday night, this flight was about two-thirds full. We pushed back a few minutes earlier than the scheduled 2214, and had to wait for only two or three other aircraft to depart from 18C before it was our turn to take off from a very rainy CLT. After takeoff, we made a sharp turn northwestward into the murk.

It had been a long day, and I thought briefly about trying to sleep, but unfortunately several other passengers decided to have a loud conversation, so I chose to continue reading. The highlight of the 2½-hour flight was a spectacular night-time view of Chicago, from about 30mi (18km) off the Lake Michigan coast. It was so clear that I could easily see the high-rises of downtown, with street lights stretching almost to the horizon. We began our descent over western Wisconsin.     US Airways's gates at MSP are close to Runway 30R, but this runway was closed for repairs, so we were assigned 30L instead. MSP operations are split between the 'traditional' US gate areas at the base of the E Concourse next to the terminal, and the former HP (America West) gates further away on the C Concourse. Unfortunately, we were assigned Gate C9, so after landing we had a very long taxi all the way around the terminal. We pulled into the gate around 2325, an amazing 30 minutes early. The distant (for MSP) gate assignment meant I had about a ten-minute walk to the main terminal.



Unfortunately, the biggest take-away from this trip is how much the service levels on airlines in the USA have declined over the last two decades. The first class meal service on all three flights where food was served was of lower quality than what a coach passenger would have received in the Eighties. I was particularly disappointed that US Airways served wine and soft drinks to first class customers in plastic cups.

It was also a disappointment that did not allow me a seat assignment in Economy Plus, even though the ticket for this trip was booked with an unrestricted first class fare basis code. This problem will go away once the ex-Ted A320s are converted to normal F/Y+/Y- configuration, but it still should not have happened in the first place. Fortunately, the seats on all four aircraft that had first class cabins were very comfortable, and all of the United and US Airways employees I came in contact with, both in the air and on the ground, were very friendly.

Finally, the DEN–GEG–DEN flights were somewhat bittersweet, because they were my last flights on a United 737. UA 737s entered service the month after I was born. When my MSP–DEN A320 pulled into the gate at DEN, there were three UA 737s parked alongside our aircraft. It made me sad to know that I would never see this sight - so familiar for all of my life - ever again.


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